The word most often used by Afghans to refer to widows is bisarparast (without someone to take care of you). In Afghanistan’s highly patriarchal society, where men are expected to be the breadwinners and opportunities for women to work are relatively few, being a widow is likely to be socially and economically precarious. They are often stigmatised, passed over for jobs and considered burdens on their families. One of the legacies of almost a half-century of war in Afghanistan it the high number of widows – there are no official statistics, but news reports put their number at two million or more. The position of widows without sons is even more insecure, especially since the Taleban takeover has intensified the requirement for women to have a close male relative to act as a chaperone (mahram) and legal guardian. The subject of our latest Daily Hustle is such a widow, an older woman who never had children and who has learned to live on her wits to survive widowhood, economic upheaval and her marginal status in society. An elderly widow stands outside her mud house in Shemol village, Nangrahar province. She has no adult males left in her family after her son and two grandsons were killed in the conflict. Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP, 25 October 2017.
A daughter’s legacy
There is a pear tree outside the room in the house that I share with my three brothers and their families. It grew from a cutting taken by my father from a tree in his father’s garden in our ancestral village, brought with him to Kabul when he and my mother moved here in search of work and a better place to raise a family. This is the house I grew up in and this room is my birthright. The room and the pear tree outside its window – a daughter’s inheritance amounts to half of a son’s share – are the only things I own in this world .
I am the only daughter and the youngest in my family. I’m also a childless widow.
I spent my girlhood at home doing chores and caring for my parents, who, by that time, were ailing and needed me to look after them. So, I never expected to get married. But after my mother died, my father came home one day with a man he said had asked for my hand. I was 25 years old – an old maid by Afghan standards – and lucky to have found a husband. He was a distant relative several years older than me, with a grown son from his first marriage. His first wife had died in childbirth and my husband, unable to care for his son, had left him in the care of his grandmother. That son still lived in our remote village in Afghanistan’s central highlands.
Our wedding night was the first I had spent away from my father’s house. We lived in the piyada khana (outbuilding) at the bottom of the garden of the guesthouse of the small NGO where my husband worked as a driver and odd-job man. He was a gentle, caring man with a great sense of humour. He always treated me with respect. He never beat me and never mistreated me. Eventually, the NGO also hired me as a cleaner and we settled into a routine. Later, his son and wife came to Kabul in search of work and lived with us for a time before they moved into their own place and got going on starting their own family. These were happy years and I thought they would last forever.
The precarious life of a widow
My husband died unexpectedly from a heart attack ten years after I married him. I had to move back to my room in my father’s house. Society cannot abide a woman living alone in a house full of strangers without a mahram. By then, my brothers were married and had children of their own. At first, they weren’t happy giving me back my room, but they came around to the idea when they realised I could contribute to household expenses and ease their financial burdens. With the help of my stepson, I fixed my room, put carpeting down and bought new toshaks (floor cushion or narrow mattresses). Several months later, the manager of the NGO gave me an old TV that was no longer being used in the guesthouse. The arrival of the TV raised my status in the household and my room became the gathering place in the evenings. When we had electricity, we used to watch Turkish soap operas over dinner.
Then, the NGO closed its guesthouse and I was suddenly without a job. I had worked there for 15 years and never considered the possibility that I might lose my livelihood. It was the only job I had ever had and I didn’t know how to find another. My old colleagues used their contacts to find me jobs, but they never lasted. First, there was the woman who didn’t like how I cleaned and thought I was too old and, later, a foreign organisation with a big guesthouse in Wazir Akbar Khan [an affluent neighbourhood in Kabul]. That job paid well, but the NGO eventually downsized and moved its staff into one of the big compounds near the airport. I again lost my job.
After my husband died, I’d been forced to start thinking about my future. My late husband was a good man, but not so good at planning for the future or putting away a nest egg for a rainy day. I used to give him all my salary, so I had no savings. I had been left only with the room I’d inherited from my father. I also knew I couldn’t count on my brothers for financial support. Instead, it was my stepson and his wife who were my safety net. He had a good job and he and his wife are warm and generous people, but their family was growing and I couldn’t contemplate having to impose on their goodwill into my old age. So, every month, I started saving some of my salary. I resisted all efforts to get me to open a bank account. Instead, I bought gold, mostly bangles as well as other gold trinkets – savings that I could see and touch and keep on my person at all times.
Facing an uncertain future
Finally, after two years of working sporadically and living mostly on the generosity of my stepson, I was introduced to a young couple who’d moved back to Afghanistan from America. The wife was pregnant and they needed someone to clean the house and care for the baby when it was born. I worked for this family for five years. I was there when their daughter took her first steps and spoke her first words and later, also, when they came back from America with their second daughter. I had grown to love this joyful young family and knew they cared for me in return.
But this was not to last. Afghanistan was changing. There were peace talks in Doha and rumours that the Taleban were going to come back to power soon. Finally, [President] Ashraf Ghani ran away and the Taleban came into Kabul the same day. The young couple I worked for started making plans to leave the country. When the Taleban took power, their jobs disappeared and they decided to return to America, where their families lived and where they had a support system. So, on a cold December morning, several months after the Taleban came back to Kabul, they left. There were tears and hugs and promises that they’d soon return.
Their departure took an emotional and financial toll on me. Once again, I was facing an uncertain future. Most people were busy making plans to leave Afghanistan and there were no jobs to be had for a middle-aged widow. My former colleagues, who’d helped me find work in the past, were no longer in Afghanistan. They called to check I was OK and some occasionally sent money. Luckily, I’d grown my savings into a long row of gold bracelets and I had some cash – several months’ salary – that the family had given me before they left. When the banks closed after the Taleban takeover, my gold bracelets kept food on the table for my brothers and my stepson’s family. I sold them one by one and got a good price for them too. The price of gold had gone up and I was able to sell them for much more than I’d paid. But with each bracelet sold, I watched my little nest egg dwindle and still I had no job.
Counting my blessings
I am truly blessed to have people who care about me. Once again, friends and former colleagues clamoured to help. Finally, with the help of a former colleague, I got a job cleaning a small organisation’s office. The work is easy, but the pay is low. I don’t think I can ever make enough money to replenish my savings. Still, I’m not complaining. For now, I earn enough to make ends meet and keep my sisters-in-law from complaining that they might have another mouth to feed.
On my way to work every morning, I walk past a group of burqa-clad women, each indistinguishable from the next, huddled together in front of the neighbourhood bakery. They are widows like me. They sit there all day, waiting for a kind passer-by or the baker to give them some bread. They must be from the neighbourhood. I probably know some of them, but any gesture of recognition would be a terrible breach of their abero (dignity). If I have any extra money, I buy a few pieces of bread for them. As I walk away, I say a prayer for them and thank God for his blessings.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 17 Jan 2024